The Moor

The Moor (2023)

The Moor had its world première on Sat 26th Aug at FrightFest in the First Blood strand

The Moor begins in Yorkshire, 1996, with an act of transgression and a loss of innocence. Young Claire (Billie Suggett) convinces her even younger – and reluctant – friend Danny (Dexter Sol Ansell) to distract the corner store’s manager with a story of being lost while she steals sweets. As Claire sneaks out of the store, she runs into a man coming in – and then, herself distracted by a strange sound coming from a side alley, she does not notice Danny leave with the man. All shot in a single fluid take, it is a disorienting sequence capturing both Claire’s wayward irresponsibility, and her increasing panic. Danny will be one of many missing children in what gets dubbed by the media ‘the Summer of Fear’ – and while a man will be arrested and imprisoned on a single provable conviction, Danny and most of the other children will remain unfound.

25 years later, the now adult Claire (Sophia La Porta) has returned for the first time to her childhood town at the invitation of Danny’s father Bill (David Edward-Robertson). Now that the chief investigating officer (Bernard Hill) has long since retired, and the perpetrator has served his life sentence and is due for imminent released, Bill is determined to uncover further evidence of the man’s crimes, even as his own search for Danny has never ended. Bill is gruff and grim, no-nonsense and not a little bitter, and comes with the air of someone deeply wounded, driven to the point of obsession, even somewhat unhinged – yet when he asks Claire, an amateurish podcaster, to document his desperate investigation, she does not hesitate to move into his cottage, seeing this undertaking as a long-standing debt that she has always sought somehow to repay. 

It is clear that both Bill and Claire have never fully processed the unresolved past that fate has made them share – and so their various excursions together are journeys through psychological as much as geographical spaces. The vast primordial moors are an ambiguous, uncanny zone of shifting mists and neolithic monuments, where primal urges ooze to the surface and grief and guilt cannot remain forever buried. Yet they are also a very real, potentially dangerous terrain – all moss and mud, with treacherous slopes and sinking bogs to disrupt the apparent uniformity (“It all looks the same,” Claire will repeat, mantra-like, in a state of near existential dread). So if this pair of searchers are like lost souls, driven to find answers written in more than mere discarded apparel or preserved flesh and bone, local ranger Liz (Vicki Hackett) is there to keep them grounded to the realities of their location, and to guide them safely in and out again. 

Bill and Claire, who come to resemble a father and daughter, are soon joined by the genuine article, as Bill, having exhausted all conventional avenues of investigation, turns to dowser Alex (Mark Peachey) and his daughter Eleanor (Elizabeth Dormer-Phillips), who is a skilled psychic. Their methods of locating Danny may be a little out there, but they too have a strategy for anchoring their unearthly talents to something more solid, counting through the number sequences of pi to bring Eleanor – a student of applied mathematics – back to earth after her ‘woo’ has opened a door to the other world. 

That is, in a nutshell, how director Chris Cronin and writer Paul Thomas let us navigate The Moor, offering two paths, one rational, one much less so, through their haunted landscapes, and leaving us to decide for ourselves how, or even whether, to find our way out and back from its dark narrative quagmires. The story is always grounded by its resemblance to the real-life horrors of the Moors murders, and even as it gradually devolves into creepy, cultish folk horror, there remain ways, for those who so desire, that its more unruly elements and diabolical dynamics can be rationalised, or at least psychologised. For here the natural and the supernatural coexist, as Cronin and his DP brother Sam unearth the numinous and the nightmarish from their otherwise real outdoor locations. One might say that while Yorkshire provides the settings, they bring the evil, with Nir Perlman’s dissonant score the portal.

Always somber and serious in tone, The Moor places harrowingly intense emotions in extremis, as its characters, unable to escape either recent history or ancient lore, find themselves traveling in an endless, ritualised circle of remorse, recrimination and deluded redemption. Cronin comes to his feature debut as a well-traveled director of award-winning shorts, but he nonetheless brings an extraordinary maturity to both the difficult material here and its careful handling. You may need a dowsing pendulum or spirit guide to find your way through these wide, unforgiving vistas – of heath and heart – in all their eerie beauty, but nonetheless this assured, unsettling mystery puts Cronin right on the map.

strap: Chris Cronin’s cold-case mystery/folk horror sees two people seeking the right location to bury their grief, guilt and gall

© Anton Bitel